Microsoft, Google, Facebook, and others join forces with law enforcement on child abuse crackdown

Participating tech firms include Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Twitter, Snap, and Roblox.

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In a joint press conference today in Washington, representatives from the Five Eyes countries and six major tech firms announced a joint framework for fighting online child exploitation and abuse.

The "Voluntary Principles to Counter Online Child Sexual Exploitation and Abuse" is a set of 11 actions that tech firms have voluntarily agreed to follow in order to prevent child predators from targeting kids on their platforms.

Talks of establishing this joint set of rules got underway last year in July at a meeting of Five Eyes officials in London. Five Eyes is an intelligence-sharing alliance comprised of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK, and the US.

Six tech firms participated and voluntarily agreed to implement this new framework -- and the 11 new rules -- on their platforms.

The six tech firms are Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Roblox, Snap and Twitter. Speaking in front of journalists today, US Attorney General William P. Barr said that other tech firms have also expressed their interest in applying the new framework's rules on their platforms as well prior to today's press release.

The 11 principles

The 11 child protection principles are detailed in a document published today by the UK government. They are split into six different categories:

  • Preventing child sexual abuse material from appearing
  • Target online grooming and predatory behaviour
  • Target livestreaming
  • A specialised approach for children
  • Victim/survivor considerations collaborate and respond to evolving threat
  • Search
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"These principles are intended to have sufficient flexibility to ensure effective implementation by industry actors," US Attorney General Barr said today.

"Some companies have already implemented measures similar to those outlined in these principles," Barr added.

"Nothing in these principles overrides or is contrary to the need for companies to comply with the law," the US official added, referring to the fact that the principles don't force companies into breaking their own encryption or adding encryption backdoors -- or at least not in an explicit way.

Putting pressure on the tech scene

However, while there was no direct talk about encryption backdoors in today's press conference, at the same time with the Five Eyes announcement, a bipartisan group of senators introduced legislation today in the US Senate named the EARN IT Act.

Per the proposed bill, tech companies who don't take steps to safeguard kids on their platforms risk having the protections provided by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act removed. Section 230 is the clause that makes users responsible for their actions, instead of the web platforms. If removed, the website hosting or aiding a child predator will be held liable for aiding and abetting criminal acts.

In other words, the US is effectively threatening tech firms to curb down child abuse content on their platforms, or face legal consequences instead of the child predators. How each company will handle this, remains at the discretion of each platform. Some might decide to implement their own encryption backdoors.

According to official numbers shared by the UK government last year, the tech industry reported more than 69 million child sexual abuse images and videos, a number that was more than 50% than the previous year.

Many of these images are being exchanged via online services, some run by the participating tech firms. Others are transferred via encrypted communications or via the dark web.

According to the UK National Crime Agency strategic assessment report, UK officials are aware of more than 3.5 million accounts registered on dark web portals where child sexual images are being regularly shared.